System integration requires collaboration

Kirk Norris from Maverick Technologies discusses the keys to collaboration and when to choose in-house integration versus third-party sourcing.


The decision of when to turn over the responsibility for your control system to a third-party integrator is driven by a number of critical factors—some of which are at odds with each other. Before joining Maverick Technologies, Kirk Norris lived those choices as brewmaster and plant manager at Anheuser-Busch InBev division. Now a senior vice president for strategic manufacturing solutions, Norris discussed those choices with Plant Engineering:

PE: What’s the key to deciding between in-house control system integration and third-party sourcing?

Norris: As many U.S. manufacturers emerged from the most challenging time in their histories, the common trend was to reduce in-house engineering, maintenance, and even operations headcount. Tough times required tough decisions that resulted in a rethinking of staffing models of the past. We see this across many industries; permanent changes have taken place.

Manufacturers are investing in their core competencies and outsourcing the activities that can be more efficiently performed by third parties. For many manufacturers, control systems engineering and integration is not a core competency. Even for those manufacturers who have proprietary processes and maintain this key knowledge in-house, keeping up with advancement in technologies makes outsourcing the application development and commissioning the most logical thing to do.

Additionally, responsibility and accountability for plant performance is being forced down the chain of command wherever possible. This is a very good thing, as we expect employees at all levels to apply the skills they trained for, leverage the available technologies, and shed non-value-added tasks—all with the goal to improve the company’s competitive position.

But there are some negative side effects. First, plant manufacturing personnel are extremely busy. And second, in today’s environment, if you do not provide a means to evaluate and incorporate new technologies and methods, these relative gains can be short lived.

So the important question every manufacturer must decide is: What is the most cost-effective way to ensure long-term continuous improvement, and successfully execute the projects needed (capital and noncapital) to secure your future position in your industry? In rare cases, the answer may be to rehire, retrain, and rebuild internally. But in most situations, the best decision will be to find a strategic manufacturing technology partner who can support these vital needs.

PE: What do integrators expect from their clients? What are the key things a plant manager or control engineer should provide in order to make a project go smoothly?

Good integrators want collaboration with their customers. Early access to key stakeholders is critical in the definition stages of a project. This is the most productive stage of an integration project. The key is to understand the most leveraging performance indicators and unique features that contribute to success within a plant or process.

Timely and consistent communication throughout the project ensures success. We don’t want to be debating the importance of a key deliverable during acceptance testing. This includes documentation on the systems; accurate drawing sets and programs allow the integrator to understand how the current system is structured and functions, and what must be done to replace or enhance the system to meet the client’s expectations.

Consistent communication across levels and disciplines provides clarity of deliverables and priorities, and helps define success. Investing the time upfront is cost-effective and helps build strong relationships. 

PE: On the other side, what should plant personnel expect from their integrator? What will be the indication they have a strong integration partner?

Plant personnel should have input and be provided choices when possible. A good strategic manufacturing technology partner should provide options from simple replacement to the latest technologies and innovations. Our job is not to simply offer what’s in our inventory. Therefore an independent systems integrator is in the best position to provide a range of options.

It’s not always obvious what the long-term implications are in areas such as maintenance support cost, training requirements, and security. In today’s environment, it is necessary to educate customers on the trade-offs between total installed cost and total cost of ownership. When customers are making 20-year decisions, it’s the integrator’s job to make sure they understand the impact of those choices in an unbiased, nonconflicted way. This is the only way plant personnel can make the best strategic decision. 

PE: How have the projects changed over the past few years? Is it equipment complexity, project complexity, or a little of both?

I think it depends on what area of systems integration we are talking about, process automation or manufacturing execution systems.

In the area of automation, we are seeing very large complex migration projects due to legacy system obsolescence. This is well known and will continue for many years. Success on these projects requires a very rigorous approach that begins with a robust front-end engineering process.

We are seeing many large manufacturers take this opportunity to perform a detailed strategic assessment of available options as they rightfully treat this as a “generational” decision.

If done correctly, the savings can be tremendous as the large OEMs fight for market share. I strongly recommend manufacturers plan early and fully consider all options before settling on the “rip and replace” alternative.

We see a different picture emerging in the MES space. Senior executives want to see quantifiable results from these investments. As such, we see more interest in taking a flexible, modular approach to building an open MES platform over time that integrates data and consolidates key production information typically required to solve business problems, improve efficiencies, and reduce costs.

This type of solution is based on leveraging the existing applications already implemented (with considerable investment) and allows manufacturers to develop their own definition of MES functionality to satisfy data requirements needed to support operations management using standard tools. 

PE: Another key seems to be long-term system maintenance. What are the factors in deciding how to handle post-installation maintenance and monitoring?

Much has been written about the convergence of information technology and operational technology, and the debate has centered around who is ultimately going to be responsible for the maintenance and lifecycle management of today’s highly networked manufacturing technology infrastructure.

We have to get past that organizational dilemma and take more of a “just do it” approach. The “do nothing” alternative is very risky, and if you have chosen that path, there is a high probability that regulatory pressure will soon force your hand.

A comprehensive maintenance program should involve network monitoring, periodic system health checks, backup and recovery, patch management, and plant IT infrastructure lifecycle management. Whether it’s terrorist threats to critical infrastructure, 100,000 hackers going after your intellectual property, or just someone with nothing better to do, the risks are real.

At Maverick, we recently conducted a study of more than 300 process automation professionals over a cross section of 11 different industries that provided some interesting insight. For example, more than half of all respondents use some form of remote monitoring and plan to expand the use of such services. Often, these services are outsourced with high satisfaction levels.

In addition to the services previously mentioned, more traditional activities such as loop monitoring, incident management, and start-up support can also be accomplished remotely. Utilizing remote services gives the manufacturer flexibility in managing post-installation maintenance and monitoring.

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